The public comment period is drawing to a close on new rules proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on regulating particulate matter pollution in the air we all breathe, and the agency has already received a record number of comments. The new rule is expected by December, and will very likely be weaker than many environmental activists had hoped. But even with the weaker standards and a 2020 deadline for meeting them, the EPA expects that San Bernardino and Riverside Counties will fail to meet the new air quality standards.
At issue is "PM 2.5," an abbreviation standing for particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or less in diameter -- more commonly referred to as soot. A persistent pollutant from coal burning and other power plants, industrial processes, automobile and diesel engine exhaust, and wood burning, PM 2.5 has been conclusively linked to a wide range of human health problems ranging from asthma and bronchitis to heart disease and strokes.
Particulate matter pollution in general has been demonstrated to cause tens of thousands of deaths a year in the United States, and PM 2.5 is especially dangerous. With diameters no more than a twenty-fifth the thickness of a human hair, PM 2.5 can penetrate into the gas exchange areas of the lungs and -- depending on its chemical makeup -- from there into the bloodstream and other organs. The World Health Organization estimates that 3% of all mortalities from cardiopulmonary disease worldwide are due to exposure to PM 2.5, as are 5% of lung cancer deaths.
And yet it took a lawsuit to force the EPA to propose new, stricter limits on PM 2.5. It's only as the result of a court order in a suit filed against the EPA by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the American Lung Association that the national ambient air quality standard for PM 2.5 is being revised. The Lung Association's interest in the matter is obvious, given the respiratory effects of PM 2.5; the NPCA became involved in part because of the damage the pollutant does to both ecological and scenic values in our National Parks.
The current legal limit for PM 2.5 is 15 micrograms (µg) per cubic meter of air. According to the language in the proposed revision, the EPA would be lowering that upper limit to an annual average of between 12 and 13 µg per cubic meter. This is a less strict standard than many environmentalists wanted. A 2011 report by the American Lung Association, Clean Air Task Force, and Earthjustice suggested that a limit of 11 µg per cubic meter of air could prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths a year -- thousands more than the EPA's proposed standard.
According to the Earthjustice report, more than 1,300 of those avoided premature deaths would involve people in the San Bernardino-Riverside-Ontario portion of the Inland Empire, assuming that airshed could make it down to 11 µg per cubic meter. The EPA doesn't expect that will happen by 2020, when the new standard will become effective. This is mainly due to the Inland Empire's topography, the concentration of a number of different industries in the basin, auto and diesel exhaust, and being downwind from Los Angeles.
The parts of the Inland Empire expected to be out of compliance with the new EPA regs are already failing to meet California's standard of 12 µg per cubic meter. So are the desert portion of San Bernardino County, the Los Angeles basin and coast from Ventura to San Diego, the San Joaquin Valley, and about half of the counties in the Bay Area. The EPA says it expects other clean air rules, which are also in the process of being made more stringent, to ease other areas into compliance. Of course, some of those other rules are being challenged by industry groups. One of these is the updated Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, which is the subject of withering attacks by the fossil fuel industry and its representatives in Congress.
The new proposed PM 2.5 standard has come in for some criticism by industry as well. In June, when the new rules were first proposed, the American Petroleum Institute's Howard Feldman told the Los Angeles Times that a more stringent standard would be expensive and confer little benefit, and that companies would be unlikely to open new refineries in counties that failed to meet the standard.
That's an argument that might not sway many people who have to breathe the air in the Inland Empire. It's clear, however, that arguments like it have swayed the Obama administration into weakening the proposed standard. Or, given the administration's history of compromising on clean air by giving its opponents more than they asked for, perhaps it was only the anticipation of maybe hearing such arguments. Who knows?
But the math is clear: an 11 µg per cubic meter standard will likely save 12,000 more lives than the EPA's proposed 12-13 µg. The EPA's proposal is better than nothing. Still, the agency should stick to the science and ignore the complaints of those who profit from putting particles in our air. The gentleman from the American Petroleum Institute may think of tens of thousands of avoided deaths as inconsequential, but those people, and their families and friends, likely do not.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.